Pancho Barnes (left) and other female pilots of the day. Amelia Earhart is in the center holding the flowers.
Pancho Barnes on her ranch, holding a pig.
Off-duty military officers from nearby Muroc Army Air Field would come to Pancho's ranch to relax.
Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes
Pancho Barnes--air racer, record setter, daredevil, and all-around free spirit--was one of the most respected fliers of the Golden Age of Flight, not just because she was a woman but also because she was a fine pilot. Barnes was an extremely colorful, flamboyant, and headstrong individual who left her mark wherever she went. She broke many stereotypes about women, not only as pilots, but also as simple mild-mannered creatures. She was famous for her salty language and dirty jokes. According to one contemporary, "she did not have a single inhibition." For Pancho, flight was necessary "to keep from exploding. It acts as a safety valve so far as I am concerned." She also claimed that flying was "a panacea for too many social duties, too much home management, too much everything conventional."
Pancho was born Florence Leontine Lowe to a wealthy family on July 22, 1901. Wanting for nothing, she grew up in a huge mansion in San Marino, California, and attended the area's finest private schools. Her father, an avid sportsman, encouraged her to appreciate the great outdoors and Florence became an accomplished equestrian. Florence's grandfather, Thaddeus Lowe, also influenced her early development. He had started the nation's first military air unit, the Army of the Potomac's balloon corps, during the American Civil War.
Florence married at 18 to appease her mother, who was worried about her wild tendencies and tomboy attitudes. Florence's husband, a prominent local Episcopalian priest named C. Rankin Barnes, appeared to be the perfect man to tame her exuberant spirit. At first, the plan seemed to work and she quickly gave birth to a son. But in 1924, when Florence's mother died, she inherited the family fortune and abandoned the idea of being a proper clergyman's wife (but did not divorce until 1941). She subsequently spent most of her time away from home.
In 1928, Florence's desire for adventure led her to disguise herself as a man and join a banana boat crew. In San Blas, Mexico, she jumped ship with a fellow crewmember and wandered the Mexican countryside. At one point during the trip, Florence was riding a donkey and her companion started calling her "Pancho" because he said she reminded him of Don Quixote's sidekick. When Florence told him that Quixote's attendant's name was actually Sancho Panza, he told her he did not care and the name "Pancho" stuck.
After four months in Mexico, "Pancho" returned home to a new adventure. In the spring of 1928, while driving her cousin Dean Barnes to a flight lesson, she instantly decided to learn to fly. That same day, Pancho convinced her cousin's instructor to give her flight lessons, and she went aloft on her first guided flight. After only six hours of formal instruction, she soloed. Pancho celebrated by immediately taking some friends up. She also started "buzzing" her husband's Sunday church services for fun. Notably, Pancho was one of only a couple dozen aviatrices in the country at the time.
Shortly after purchasing a Travel Air biplane, one of the day's finest aircraft, Pancho began a barnstorming tour. On Sundays, she and a handsome young parachutist named "Slim," toured the local countryside in Pancho's plane and performed at an air show called the "Pancho Barnes Flying Mystery School." Their typical show began with Pancho performing a number of daring aerial maneuvers and climaxed with a stunt that involved an unsuspecting young lady from the crowd. Slim would pick a woman from the audience under the pretext of taking her up for a ride, but when the woman went aloft, Slim would wait for the right moment and then give the woman a push out of the plane and pull the ripcord on her parachute. Fortunately, for Slim and Pancho, none of the young ladies was ever hurt and the show became well known around southern California.
In 1929, Pancho began her air-racing career. On February 22, she entered her first race, which also happened to be the first women's air race. Pancho won the 80-mile (128-kilometer) contest by more than 24 minutes. In the process, she defeated two other well-known aviatrixes, Bobbi Trout, the then current women's solo endurance flying champion, and Margaret Perry, the first woman to own and manage a southern California airport. Hooked on racing, Pancho also entered the first Women's Air Derby in August, already the era's most prestigious women's contest. The derby was a transcontinental contest from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland. Pancho did well during the early legs of the race and finished among the top three spots in each leg. But in Pecos, Texas, she badly damaged her plane when she collided with a truck on the runway and had to withdraw.
Pancho's best year as a racer and record setter was 1930. That year she became the first woman to fly into the interior of Mexico when she opened a new route for an airline. On August 1, she bettered Amelia Earhart's women's speed record of 184.6 miles per hour (297 kilometers per hour) by achieving a new mark of 196.19 miles per hour (315.7 kilometers per hour) in her Travel Air Model R, or "Mystery Ship," one of the finest aircraft of the era. Later that month, she also won the first "Tom Thumb" air race, a 225-mile (362-kilometer) contest along the California coast. As if these achievements were not enough, Pancho also set speed records from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and from Los Angeles to Sacramento. She also started working in the movie industry as a stunt pilot and technical aerial advisor, and eventually helped form a stunt pilot's union.
Pancho was a poor money manager and by the mid 1930s, she was in serious enough financial trouble that she had to make some drastic changes in her life. With very little of her inheritance left, and because she believed that she had gone just about as far as she could as an aviatrix, Pancho decided to take the money she had left and build a ranch in the remote California Mojave Desert in March 1935. Though she left her days of competitive flying behind, her move to the Mojave allowed her to stay very involved in aviation history.
Fortunately for Barnes, her ranch was only a few miles away from March Field, an Army Air Corps bombing range. Taking advantage of the base's proximity, Pancho started providing the camp with pork and dairy products. Eventually, she opened her home to the camp's off-duty pilots. As March Field became Muroc Air Field, and eventually turned into Edwards Air Force Base, home of the world's fastest experimental test planes and pilots, Barnes's ranch proved a fine place for pilots to party until all hours. Horses were available for riding, and Barnes built a restaurant and bar, a coffee house, a dance hall, a swimming pool, a motel, and even a private airstrip. For Edward's pilots, Pancho's place became a home. Eventually, it became known as the "Happy Bottom Riding Club," referring to the happy horseback riders who relaxed there.
In 1952, Pancho's party finally came to end. Edwards needed room to expand its runways onto Pancho's land, and her civilian guests' planes were encroaching on Edward's air space. Although Pancho sued Edwards to retain her property, an unexplained fire broke out on the ranch and ended the dispute.
After leaving the ranch, Pancho endured some very difficult years. She survived two cancer operations and the death of her son in an airplane accident. She also went through a fourth and very messy divorce. But there were also some bright spots. In 1968, she began giving flight lessons with her "Mystery Ship." She also became a much sought after lecturer and received numerous honors from several aviation organizations. In 1975, Pancho Barnes, one of the most spirited and colorful individuals of any period, finally succumbed to cancer.
Perhaps one of the best ways to summarize Pancho's life is to use her own words about the times she and her fellow aviators had at her ranch: "We had more fun in a week than most of the weenies in the world have in a lifetime."
--David H. Onkst
Sources and further reading:
Jessen, Gene. The Powder Puff Derby of 1929: The First All Women's Transcontinental Air Race. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2001.
Kessler, Lauren. The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes. New York: Random House, 2000.
Moolman, Valerie. Women Aloft. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1981.
Pancho Barnes: An Original. Edwards Air Force Base History Office, Cal., 1982.
Schultz, Barbara Hunter. Pancho: The Biography of Florence Lowe Barnes. Lancaster, Cal.: Little Buttes Publishing Co., 1996.
Tate, Grover Ted. The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus: The Story of Pancho Barnes. Bend, Oregon: Maverick, 1984.
"Florence "Pancho" Barnes - Aviation's Companion." http://www.edwards.af.mil/history/docs_html/people/pancho_barnes_biography.html
"Florence Leontine Lowe (Pancho) Barnes." http://www.publicshelter.com/flygirls/prologue/pancho.html
Schultz, Barbara H. "The Pancho Barnes Story: One of Aviation's Most Colorful Couples." Aviation for Women Magazine. Fall 1997. v. 9, I. 4. 11-14, (4). http://www.wiai.org/magazine/articles/pancho_barnes.cfm